You are here

A Story of Perseverance

June 19, 2020

Attending college is no walk in the park. Classes are difficult, money is tight, and keeping up your mental health can be a struggle. Add that to losing a parent and being a first-generation student, and life becomes tough. When all this hits you at once, it can be hard to believe you will ever manage all the challenges, much less end up happy and successful.

Professor Penny Edgell is a testament that it’s possible to persevere through challenges and become successful in your profession and happy with your life. Now a cultural sociologist at UMN studying religion in the US, Edgell is influential in her field, but if you told her this would happen years ago, before she decided to go to college, she wouldn’t have believed you.

The Beginning for a Family

Edgell grew up in rural Ohio, and no one in her parents’ generation had been to college. As the time came for her to decide whether to apply to college, her mother passed away. As grief made it difficult to think about the future, she considered not applying at all, but her father and her guidance counselor pushed her to apply to schools.

Her counselor suggested that, given her grades, she should apply to a few Ivy League universities. At first, Edgell thought that even applying would be useless because she couldn’t afford it, but she found out she could get more aid from a private institution. She now says facts like this one are “the things...people in multi-generational college families know that [she] just didn’t” and credits her counselor for helping her navigate this new world.

Finding a Safe Space

Edgell was accepted to Princeton University, which she says astounded her, and she still remembers the moment she found out. She called her father during lunch, and he gave her the news. She says, “I was crying in the hallway. It was just awesome.”

Although she was excited about her future, she was not prepared for the hardships that would come with attending college as a first-generation student. She says her first semester “was really hard” and she “was depressed a lot.” Still reeling from the grief of her mother’s death, it wasn’t until she found a support group that she was able to start working through her feelings. “It helped me,” she recounts, “[because] it was a safe space to express the grief I was still feeling.”

However, the grief was only one component of her background that made her feel distant from her peers. As a first-generation student, she explains, “There was [also] the fact that there was all this stuff I didn’t know.” She started to connect with others when she finally found students who were also having to learn how college worked.


While attending Princeton, Edgell discovered her interest in sociology and religion but was not sure what she wanted to do after graduation. She thought about attending law school because it seemed practical, but her undergraduate thesis advisor opened her eyes to a whole new world of opportunity when he suggested she consider graduate school.

Edgell was surprised and remembers telling him, “I just don’t think people like me do that kind of thing.” She meant first-generation students from lower-class families and small towns. She did not “know anybody who lived like that,” who lived a life where “you just do research, and you write, you read, and you think about things,” so she did not think she could live that kind of life either.

Her advisor revealed he, too, was a first-generation student from a small town and reassured her that she could make a living out of going to graduate school. She decided to apply to graduate programs, attended the University of Chicago where she earned her MA and PhD in sociology, and never looked back.

Finding Success

Despite the challenges she faced early on her path, Edgell found tremendous success. She has conducted influential research related to religion and non-religion and what roles they play in the public arena. For example, she studies how Americans feel about public expressions of religious symbols and beliefs as well as how religious and non-religious people create unique communities. She has written numerous articles, papers, and books that impacted her field, inspiring others to think differently about “the role that religion plays in people’s lives [and in] politics and public culture.”

Additionally, Edgell has found success as an educator. Having the chance to impact many students’ lives is one of the most rewarding things about teaching. She has been touched to receive letters and emails from past undergraduate and graduate students thanking her for how she affected their lives. Edgell says that she “can’t imagine a more rewarding profession.”

Her advice for today’s first-generation students is four-pronged. First, she says that dealing with other things in your life, like grief, anxiety, and depression, “is going to make dealing with all the other things about being a first-generation student a lot easier.” Next, she emphasizes to “focus on the basics,” like getting enough sleep, eating healthily, and prioritizing self-care. It is also essential to realize that you may need to change the study habits that got you into college. And lastly, she stresses the importance of finding “people who are genuinely peers” that can help you figure out this “new you.” These practices helped her get through—and come to love—her time in school.

Edgell says that of all her professional achievements, her biggest accomplishment is simply that she has “the life [she] wanted to have.” Considering her start as a first-generation student, she says, “I’m proud life has not been driven by necessity. [The fact] that I can have some imagination about what I want to do and pursue it has made a very fulfilling life.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.